Hymns for Ash Wednesday

By Anika Smith Published on February 10, 2016

Music has the power to change our hearts, which is why every time God’s people get together they sing and remind themselves and one another of His story and their place in it. The great evangelists had great hymn-writers and singers working with them, from John Wesley preaching with his brother Charles’s hymns during the Second Great Awakening to Billy Graham’s altar calls with George Beverly Shea’s voice throughout the mid-twentieth century.

As music can convince our hearts of the truth, the liturgical calendar can remind us where we are and where we fit into Christ’s story, putting our lives and our communities into context. Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent and a day of repentance — where in facing up to our sin and failure, we choose to turn away from our own ways and turn toward Jesus.

The work of repentance is not natural; we yearn for control, for blissful ignorance of our faults, for life on our own terms. This is where music can help.

We’ve already shared a few songs for listening to on Ash Wednesday; now let’s see what we can learn from looking at Lenten hymns, the songs that direct our hearts, comforting and convicting in proper measure.

Jesus, I Come

William Sleeper wrote “Jesus, I Come” as an altar call, but the song fits any Christian leaving sin aside and turning to God’s goodness. The first stanza is every heart’s cry at Lent:

Out of my bondage, sorrow, and night,
Jesus, I come, Jesus, I come;
Into Thy freedom, gladness, and light,
Jesus, I come to Thee;
Out of my sickness, into Thy health,
Out of my want and into Thy wealth,
Out of my sin and into Thyself,
Jesus, I come to Thee.

 

My Jesus, I Love Thee

“My Jesus, I Love Thee” has fallen out of fashion, which is too bad, because there’s no clearer motivation for leaving sin and turning to God than the love of this first stanza. This is where love of Christ starts — with turning away from our idols — but it’s only the beginning.

My Jesus, I love Thee, I know Thou art mine;
For Thee all the follies of sin I resign.
My gracious Redeemer, my Savior art Thou;
If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.

 

Jesus, Lover of My Soul

There are other, jauntier settings to this classic Charles Wesley hymn, but this version sung by Fernando Ortega in a minor key better captures the plight of sin-scarred soul:

Just and holy is Thy Name; I am all unrighteousness.
False and full of sin I am; Thou art full of truth and grace.

 

 

From Depths of Woe

It may not be as well known as “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” but Martin Luther’s setting of Psalm 130 has a similar unshakable trust in the Lord. “From Depths of Woe” is a song for seeing yourself as you really are – unable to stand before a holy God apart from His mercy. If you are tempted to despair, be sure to sing the fifth verse and remind yourself:

Though great our sins and sore our woes
His grace much more aboundeth;
His helping love no limit knows,
Our utmost need it soundeth.
Our Shepherd good and true is He,
Who will at last His Israel free
From all their sin and sorrow

 

Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus

The point of repentance is not in leaving whatever it is that keeps us from God, but in turning to Him and coming home. And according to many of the saints who have gone before, in focusing on Him we find our peace.

This hymn was written by Helen Lemmel, who was a music teacher at Moody Bible Institute. She wrote the song for Billy Sunday’s revival meetings in the 1920s after being inspired by artist Lillias Trotter, who found that her passion for God was greater than any other love — even the good things in her life. This is what Lillias Trotter had to say about fighting against “drift,” as they call it these days:

Never has it been so easy to live in half a dozen harmless worlds at once — art, music, social science, games, motoring, the following of some profession, and so on. And between them we run the risk of drifting about, the good hiding the best. It is easy to find out whether our lives are focused, and if so, where the focus lies. Where do our thoughts settle when consciousness comes back in the morning? Where do they swing back when the pressure is off during the day? Dare to have it out with God, and ask Him to show you whether or not all is focused on Christ and His Glory. Turn your soul’s vision to Jesus, and look and look at Him, and a strange dimness will come over all that is apart from Him.

 

May your soul’s vision look to Christ and find great joy this Lent.

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